In an effort to revive sagging fortunes and declining attendance at Colonial Williamsburg, organizers at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation have affianced themselves to an organization called "Revolutionary City" (Virginia Pilot, Feb 21st). Starting in March, parts of the town will be closed to tourists unless they pay extra admission fees. Behind the gates, "Revolutionary City" will recreate events during the American revolution between 1776-1783 in which "George Washington" will address the troops before the march to Yorktown, for example. Fee paying guests may ask a soldier what he thinks of his leader (Newsweek, Feb 13th).
Apparently, museum administrators opine that people today have a harder time connecting their own lives with living history sites like Williamsburg. They feel that recreations of distant events with live actors will help today's multicultural audiences do just that.
The Virginia Pilot article reports that in the mid-eighties 1.2 million paying visitors a year kept local restaurant and hotels busy. When I visited in 1976, it was thriving. I enjoyed every minute of my visit. So what happened to imagination? I don't know about you, but once I see a recreation of an event or a book as a movie, its likely that images from the movie replace what I once imagined as the battle of Culloden and the defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie, or a tea farm in Kenya where Karen Blixen once lived at the foot of the Ngong hills (about which I know a tiny bit having grown up near Kisumu). Imagination not only liberates our minds and hearts but it creates possibility and vision. It is polyvalent and not uniform: no images need be set in stone.
Recently I revisited the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore. My acoustiguide allowed me to access three kinds of information: descriptions of art works, assessments of the religious significance of various pieces and short pieces of music thought relevant to the piece. With imagination and emotions kindled, I can still see and hear a painting and accompanying music from that visit. If my critical imagination abandoned painting descriptions or thought another piece of music more suitable to a painting or sculpture, so much the better.
I've been to Gettysburg. The field where Pickett's charge took place and the setting for President Lincoln's Gettysburg address live in my imagination aided by a few photographs of the time. I am alas, sceptical that recreating events from the period of the American revolution will heighten my engagement with the period. I'm glad I went to Williamsburg a long time ago.